How pilot training works...

Everyone is always asking what pilot training is like, so here is a simple description of US Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT, or simply UPT).

First off, to become an Air Force pilot, one must be commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. Young men and women go through one of three different commissioning sources: the Air Force Academy, ROTC at the university they attend, or Officer Training School - a 3 month training program for enlisted members or civilians who have earned a college degree.

Newly commissioned officers will then be assigned to an Air Force base for "casual status" - the time of waiting until UPT starts. Casual status may last a few weeks to a few months, even lasting over a year for some. Lieutenants may be assigned to various on-base agencies to fill in doing jobs that don't require much training but that need to be done.

At some point during casual status, pilots-to-be must attend Initial Flight Screening (IFS), a centralized flight screening program based in Pueblo, CO. This program is designed to give pilot trainees some flight experience and screen out those who may not have what it takes to become a military aviator. It is six weeks long and students receive approximately 20-25 flight hours.

Finally, it is time for UPT. Air Force UPT currently takes place at the following locations: Columbus AFB, MS; Laughlin AFB, TX; Vance AFB, OK; and partially at NAS Whiting Field, FL. Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), a joint USAF/NATO pilot training program, is conducted at Sheppard AFB, TX.

UPT lasts approximately 1 year and is broken into three different phases of training.


Phase I consists of academics, physiological training, simulators, and introductory ground training for the primary training aircraft, the T-6 Texan II. Phase I lasts about six weeks.


Phase II is where the flying begins. All pilot trainees (at Air Force bases) learn to fly in the T-6 Texan II. Basic military flying skills - such as aerobatics, instrument, navigation, and formation flying - are taught during this phase. This phase lasts about four and a half months. At the end of Phase II, an important event called "Track Select" occurs. Following Phase II, student pilots will now separate into four distinct "tracks" of training for Phase III. This selection is based on student performance (ranking in the class), commander's rating, and student preference. The four tracks continue teaching and honing basic flying skills. They also add specialized training for follow-on assignments in aircraft of a similar nature. These tracks (and associated aircraft) are as follows:

Fighter/Bomber track (T-38)
Airlift/Tanker track (T-1)
Tactical Airlift track (T-44)
Helicopter track (UH-1H)

Those selected for T-38s or T-1s will remain at their same UPT base for Phase III. T-44 selectees will move to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas for training with the Navy. They will go on to fly C-130s. Helicopter guys will move to Ft. Rucker, Alabama for Phase III and learn how to fly helicopters.


This is the final phase of UPT and lasts for the duration of the year (approximately six months). T-38 students will focus on tactical flying and formation flying to prepare them for assignments as pilots of fighter jets or bombers. Student pilots in the T-1 track focus on instrument, navigation, airlift, and aerial refueling techniques. This prepares them for a future assignment flying cargo and tanker jets.

Towards the end of Phase III, students are once again asked their preference as to their future assignment as a rated pilot. Assignments are unveiled at a ceremony called "Assignment Night" (at some bases). Assignments are based on which aircraft in the operational Air Force currently need pilots, as well as (once again) student performance, commander's rating, and student preference. The needs of the Air Force usually prevail, but those at the top of their class are given extra consideration as to their preference. In a fun and lively ceremony, the students' future assignments are given out - amid a variety of reactions including rejoicing, utter disappointment, or plain indifference.

Two weeks after Assignment Night, students receive their wings and become rated Air Force pilots. Graduation is a big day at the end of a long year of hard work and flying.

Primary Trainer: T-6 Texan II

The T-6 Texan II is the primary training aircraft for UPT. It is a single engine turbo-prop with tandem seating for the student and instructor.

T-38 Track

Students selected for the T-38 track fly the supersonic (capable) fighter jet trainer. After graduation, they go on to fly one of the following: F-15E, F-16, F-22 (if they're lucky), A-10, B-1, B-2, B-52, or U-28.

UH-1H (Helo) Track

Students selected for helicopter training move to Ft. Rucker, Alabama and complete training in the UH-1H Huey helicopter. Future assignments are in the UH-1N Huey (airlift and support missions at Space Command bases), HH-60 Pavehawk (combat search and rescue), and CV-22 Osprey (airlift support for special operations forces).

T-1 Track

Students selected for training in the T-1 remain at the base where they completed Phases I and II. Following graduation, pilots will go to follow-on training for the following airlift (cargo) or tanker (refueling) aircraft: C-17, C-5, C-21, KC-135, KC-10, E-3 AWACS, U-28, or perhaps the C-130. (This list may not be comprehensive).

T-44 Track

The T-44 is a Navy twin-engine turbo-prop - a modified King Air. Joint training takes place at NAS Corpus Christi, TX. After graduation, T-44 students go on to training at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas in the C-130 Hercules.